Monday, May 14, 2012

Maurice Sendak R.I.P.

Maurice Sendak, the children's author best known for Where The Wild Things Are, passed on 8 May 2012 at the age of 83. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Maurice Sendak was born in Brooklyn, New York on 10 June 1928. As a child he read vociferously and he took to drawing while quite young. As a child he was also frequently ill and experienced the Great Depression and then his extended family in Poland dying in the Holocaust. Mr. Sendak decided to become an illustrator when he was only twelve and saw Fanstasia. He was still a teenager when he first worked professionally as an artist. He drew backgrounds for the Mutt & Jeff comic strip for All-American Comics (one of the companies that would become DC Comics).  In 1947 he illustrated a textbook titled Atomics for the Millions by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff.

When he was 20 years old he got a job at F. A. O. Schwartz creating window displays. The store's children's book buyer introduced him to Ursula Nordstrom, the children's book illustrator at Harper & Row. As a result Mr. Sendak illustrated his first children's book, The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Aymé, published in 1951. He would go onto illustrate such children's books as A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm by Betty MacDonald, Singing Family of the Cumberlands by Jean Ritchie, and The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong. He also illustrated "The Little Bear" series by Else Holmelund Minarik.

The first book Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated was Kenny's Window in 1956. He would follow it with Very Far Away (1957), The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960), and "The Nutshell Library" series. It was in 1963 that his most famous work, Where The Wild Things Are, was published. He would follow Where the Wild Things Are with several other books, including Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967), In the Night Kitchen (1970), Seven Little Monsters (1977), Outside Over There (1981), We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993), and Mommy? (a pop up book, 2006).

In addition to illustrating and writing his own books, Maurice Sendak would also serve as a producer on the animated series Little BearGeorge & Martha, and Seven Little Monsters, as well s the feature films The Little Bear Movie (2001) and Where the Wild Things Are (2010). He served as a production designer on Nutcracker (1986). He wrote and served as art designer on the animated special Really Rosie (1975).

If Maurice Sendak is one of the best known and most celebrated children's authors and illustrators of the late 20th Century, it is perhaps because he was not afraid to portray the darkness inherent in the human condition. The protagonists of his works were never well behaved and often naughty. Indeed, when we meet Max, the protagonist of Where the Wild Things Are, he is sent to bed without supper after wreaking havoc about the house in a wolf costume. In Outside Over There the heroine Ida is jealous of her baby sister, although she does set out to rescue the baby when she is kidnapped by goblins. Not only were Mr. Sendak's protagonists almost never the well behaved children of past children's books, but they were often filled with the stuff of nightmares. Wild things, giants monsters, goblins, and other assorted beasties often filled Maurice Sendak's books. In Mommy?, Maurice Sendak's only pop-up book, a toddler searching for his mother in a haunted mansion encounters monsters loosely inspired by those from the old Universal horror movies.

Of course, it was not simply the fact that Maurice Sendak wrote children's books that were much darker than many that had come before them, but also the fact that he was a very different illustrator from many that had come before him. While his style had a great deal of variety, it often showed an influence from the comic books and comic strips of his youth. At the same time that Maurice Sendak's art echoed comic books from the 1930s and 1940s, his art could also have a Victorian quality about it. Some of his illustrations looked as if they could have been watercolours from the 1890s. His style was uniquely his own, alternately whimsical and frightening.

In the end the success of Maurice Sendak can be chalked up to his enormous talent and that he recognised that children are often enthralled by the darker and scarier parts of life. While many American children's writers before him wrote stories through rose coloured glasses, Mr. Sendak followed the course set by the fairy tales of old, introducing children who were not always well behaved and monsters who were not always frightening into American children's literature. It is for this he will be remembered.

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